Musings on Sustainability in the Developing World


Image via: Author's Collection.

A few weeks ago I traveled down to Nicaragua with Power to the People and Green Empowerment to install solar on a school in a very remote village. While down there, I had the chance to see first hand how renewable energy is brought to other communities, the challenges in maintaining solar systems and the differences between solar in the US and abroad. But, while living with a family for a week, taking bucket baths and trying to keep my apparently sensitive stomach from eating anything it didn't agree with, I had a chance to think a bit about sustainability and what that means outside of the walls of the US.The Water and Plastic Connection

Before I even left the US, I was bombarded with advice for how to stay safe and healthy while traveling, most of which involves not eating local food (definitely not off of a food cart), and definitely not drinking any of the water. Not even to brush your teeth. While this is understandable - our sensitive stomachs just aren't built for non-Brita filtered water - the flip side of this is that it means that we had to not only bring bottled water down with us, but it also meant we were constantly buying (and disposing of) bottled water. At first, you feel like a cad for purchasing several bottles of water here in the US and using precious luggage space to cart those bottles down with you, and then during the first few days you feel like and even more irresponsible person as you find you need increasingly more bottled water.

I purchased 3 bottles of water before I left, and while these were supposed to last me the week, I found that I didn't count on needing water while I was out sweating in the hot, "tropical" sun. Every morning I had to buy water and something called "Electrolight" which is the equivalent of Gatorade or any other power drink here in the States. Then at lunch our packed lunches included another bottle of water. Dinner time at restaurants also meant ordering bottled water. While the fresh juice on the menu, made from fruits we rarely see, looked good, the voice in the back of my head said "wouldn't you rather have bottled water?" Our guides only confirmed our weak stomachs by saying we could risk it but with the looks on their faces saying "I wouldn't if I were you."

These multiple bottles of water each day meant that we had to find a way to dispose of them. In the city, recycling is "sort-of" starting to catch on, but in the rural area it's definitely not an option. This means throwing away the plastic, and after we witnessed how "throwing away" the plastic, means it gets burned in the streets with the rest of the garbage, we had to find another way to curb our eco-sins. When we went out to the project, we found that the community there uses the plastic water bottles to either refill with water or to hold cooking grease, etc. We just made sure to take all of them with us each morning where at least they could be reused instead of burned.

Electricity and Cell Phones

One interesting idea that one of the other volunteers came up with was to recognize how advanced technologies are allowing developing countries to skip over the older, polluting technologies. This is something, particularly as an environmental studies student, one hopes will happen, but it is rare that you hear about it actually coming to fruition. The idea first made sense when one of the volunteers commented on how the rural areas were so remote and poor that landlines were never installed in the community. Instead, typically one home in the community was in charge of the telephone and permitting phone calls. Now that cell towers are being installed and cell phones are "relatively" cheap, everyone in the community has a cell phone and they no longer need the phone lady. It also means that the community didn't have to worry about all of those buried lines, they just bypassed that technology and went straight for cell phones as they were more accessible and affordable.

We wondered if the same would be possible for electricity. Many of the villages we went to were, again, so remote that power lines had not been installed in the homes and thus homeowners were used to getting by with manual labor instead of appliances and no refrigeration. Welcome, the advent of the solar panel. Now that solar is more prevalent, companies exist who will install the panels throughout the countryside and homeowners more able to pool their money together and purchase a panel, thanks to microloans, homeowners now have power over their own power. Since most homes have few to no appliances, due to never having electricity, typically one solar panel and a battery or two is all that is needed to charge cell phones, run a tv or radio, and possibly a fridge (but not an iron - those use too much, apparently).

Taking that idea one step further, what if homes can bypass needing power lines or to be connected to the grid. Cities would have no need for developing multiple coal-fired power plants (or other harmful, electricity-generation plants), thus meaning that they don't have to get used to being addicted to oil, and lots of it. If their citizens develop their own means to be self-sustainable (i.e. via a solar panel or two), what does that mean for the future of their national carbon footprint? As homeowners purchase a solar panel, and thus a few corresponding appliances, and then get exposed to new ideas, and become more efficient at doing work, thanks to the help of the panel, and have time to do more things, and thus generate more income, therefore enabling the family to purchase more appliances. Would the homeowner instead just opt to purchase an additional solar panel or two, or even make the big investment to purchase an array, as exponentially their wealth improves? Meaning that the home would only consume what they could produce, in terms of electricity? Their consumption (appliances, electrical needs) would be matched by the amount of electricity stored in their batteries and produced by their solar panels.

It makes one hopeful, indeed, to think that such a scenario is possible for large communities of people and even the majority of countries. Clearly such a scenario would be hard to do in the United States. Admittedly there are homes that are off-grid and only consume what they produce, but this sort of thing is few and far between for sure and would be hard to get everyone to go back to something like this (except of course for reducing consumption and then purchasing a solar array to match consumption levels).

Exporting Food and Sustainable Income

One night after dinner, I had a long conversation with my host family about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. At one point, the conversation made me feel like I was having a conversation with Michael Pollan instead of farmers 1,000s of miles away from the US. The husband is a dairy farmer and has noticed that the slump in the american economy is being felt around the world. He poignantly told me that what happens in America affects everyone else, in a way that no other country can impact another. So now that people are not purchasing as freely, they are having a harder time selling their goods (cheese, fruits, etc) on the international market.

The more he talked, the more I wanted to go home and buy cheese from Nicaragua and give those grapes from Chili a second glance. I typically purchase all of my produce from the local farmers market, or as much as possible. I know this issue is a paper/plastic issue for many people with no obvious, easy answer and our conversation was only leaving me more confused (and guilty). I want to do the right thing for the planet, which I assumed was to purchase from local farmers who are in need of support. But now I also didn't want to hurt farmers in developing countries by boycotting anything flown in.

I'm not sure I've come up with the right answer. I guess for now I'll keep it simple with the local farmers market. But when I do need vegetables and fruit from the grocery store, I won't beat myself up just because those organic oranges were flown in from South America. I'll remember my host family and learn to let it go.

Keeping it Simple

I recognize that no one should live in poverty or be without options for income and educational advancement. But, there is something to be said for a simple life. During this same coffee clutch, both of the parents said that they were perfectly happy in their life and wouldn't trade their situation for more money or a bigger house. The father, as I mentioned, is a dairy farmer, and the wife runs a small store in town (there is literally one on every block in this town). They have a two bedroom, one bath home and a modest yard. Nothing extravagant, though they are doing well for themselves and their two children. They have a small television for watching football and recently got a fridge and stove when an American living in town moved and sold her appliances. In the evenings, they have their dinner and then walk around town visiting with neighbors. They don't just know everyone on their street, they know everyone in the community.

While the bathroom is very simple (just a curtain for the door), I realized that taking a bucket bath is WAY more efficient than my typical showers at home. While I am pretty good about keeping them short and am learning to take navy showers, it never hit home just how much water I was using until I had to put water in a 5 gallon bucket and figure out how to get all of the soap out of long hair without using all the water up. I realized that I didn't even need or use more than half of the water. Could I (we) learn to keep a bucket in our showers and use under 5 gallons of water?

Keeping it simple, the parents don't have a rat-race of a commute - both just walk down the street to work. They don't even own a car, so no chance for road rage. They do have to sleep under bednets, but if thats what you've always done, then there is no whining and it's not weird. There's no overload of emails, facebook messages, twitting and flitting and digging to keep up with. They eat dinner together every night and sometimes even eat breakfast and lunch. While they may not have some opportunities available to others, they looked me in the face and said they are both contented and happy. What more could they want?

The experience made me want to go home and unplug myself a bit more. Learn to grow a few vegetables on my patio and maybe try a bucket bath every now and then. Meet a few more of my neighbors and spend more time outside in my front yard. We brought solar down to a community and taught them to use it, but they also taught us a few things about sustainability that we weren't necessarily expecting to find.

More on Sustainability in the Developing World
What is a Sustainable Society?
Food Flight! The Argument Over Flying Organic Food
What Slums Can Teach Us About Sustainability
Can the Asian Countries Go Green Soon Enough?

Tags: Communities | Developing Nations | Living With Less | Nicaragua | Plastics | Solar Power | United States

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